The Ordeal: Evaluation and the Production of Historians

by Contributor on March 29, 2012

By Greg Kennedy

I remember being so exhausted that I seriously considered breaking from the column and lying down in a ditch. I remember being so angry that I almost punched my instructor. And I remember the sense of accomplishment when I finally finished basic training, the confidence that has become a continual source of strength. In the military, “the ordeal” is not just a test, it is a fundamental experience which forces recruits to experience exhaustion, anger and frustration so that they can master these emotions and be able to perform in the most stressful of situations.

Many professions, including that of historian, employ an ordeal to test its candidates. I remember my PhD thesis defence. From the sound of the bell, my external examiner tried to knock me out with an all-out attack, criticizing everything from the organization and the methodology to the conclusions of my work. My certification and my job prospects depended on this man. My heartbeat elevated and I felt cold. I remember taking a few moments to gather my thoughts and steady my voice, and virtually nothing else. But I must have done all right because here I am; a historian and professor.

After basic training, members of the military are accepted into the group. But, for historians, the ordeal does not end with the defence. As one of my mentors put it, being a historian means being constantly criticized and even rejected for the rest of your life. For example, professors are formally evaluated by their students on a regular basis, even though their responses are highly biased by how entertaining they found the course, how easy they found it and, especially, whether they are getting the marks they expect. Historians are also evaluated by their peers – publicly, at conferences and in book reviews, and anonymously through peer review of their submissions for research grants and publication. This evaluation matters. Financing is essential to accomplishing research projects and publication of research results is essential to getting tenure or promotion. Above all, these various judgements create a historian’s reputation.

Sometimes it is the application of the ordeal that creates problems. In the past, many military instructors cross the line into abuse. The physical hardship can cause serious injury, while the psychological consequences of failure can last a long time. Fortunately, in recent years, much has been done to update and better supervise the training. The worst of the excesses have been eliminated through hard work and determination, a collective belief that the ordeal must be justified, safe and true to professional objectives. I remember distinctly a march during my training during which the sergeants started harassing one of the students. The officer at the head of the column called the lead sergeant forward and said something to him and that was the end of that.

My own experience has led me to believe that the time has come to review “the Ordeal” of historians. This semester, one of my own students went through a Master’s thesis defence and I am also evaluating somebody else’s thesis for an upcoming defence. Both experiences have been challenging and I find myself questioning WHY we test our students in this way. Does it make us better historians? Is this experience fundamental to the requirements of our profession? Throughout my career, at conferences and public talks, I have seen people aggressively attack speakers and try to discredit or dismiss their work. Everyone else in the room shifted uncomfortably but rarely did someone intervene, even though everyone knew that the line into unconstructive criticism had been crossed. Often, people will say things like “that is just the way that person is, it was not personal”. I have similarly seen people take advantage of the protection of the anonymous peer review process to launch devastating attacks. Some of the statements certain reviewers make are more personal insult than constructive criticism. Perhaps their intentions were good, but from their tone and word choice it is hard to believe that their aim was not to discourage, discredit or harm. In talking to various editors and members of grant committees, I realize that the competition is fierce, the review process is long and it is difficult to find reviewers.

Excuses notwithstanding, our acceptance of these excesses allows them to flourish. Some people may even agree with such tactics. Watch Question Period or read a newspaper and you will find no shortage of insults and attacks launched by supposedly professional political leaders at each other. Our legal system is unashamedly adversarial, and witnesses and defendants are regularly attacked as a way of “getting to the truth.” Are these appropriate models for the profession of history?

If ordeal is a useful concept for historical training, then we need to ensure that it is being applied in an appropriate manner consistent with our objectives. If thesis defences, with an arms-length external examiner, are the best way to evaluate whether a student is ready for professional certification, then the candidates need to be better prepared for this confrontation by their supervisors. I certainly could have done better with my student, but I am also not convinced that the ability to respond confidently to aggressive interrogation is the best measure of readiness.

If teaching evaluations are supposed to help professors improve their methods as well as the learning of students, they need to have pedagogical and curricular merit. The timing and type of questions should promote constructive feedback rather than encourage a superficial evaluation based on consumer satisfaction.

If presentations are supposed to be opportunities to share our research results as well as gain constructive feedback on other possible sources and interpretations, then panel chairs need to be assertive, ensuring that time limits and people are respected. Ask a question or offer a suggestion – more serious concerns should be dealt with individually and informally.

If anonymous peer review is designed to help researchers advance and finalize their projects as well as gain access to financing and be published, then reviewers need to evaluate the submission on its own merits and objectives, not on what they think the historian should have done or on how much the findings agree with their own interpretation. Editors should ignore, in part or in their entirety, reports that contain unconstructive criticisms and, since they alone know the identity of the reviewer, should provide feedback to that individual. They might consider not using repeat offenders in the future.

It is a competitive world out there, perhaps now more than ever. I am certainly not advocating the removal of any evaluation from our profession. Nor am I suggesting that abuse has become widespread. But like any profession, we must be self-regulating and I am not convinced that we are doing enough. An ongoing “Ordeal” can be a strength, creating researchers and teachers who are leaders continually striving to learn and improve. But if it is unproductive, excessive or abusive, then it loses its value and, worse, we lose or discourage good people. Even a few such cases are too many. In this post, I hope to inspire reflection and discussion. Are our methods of producing and evaluating historians the best possible? Are they being applied appropriately all of the time? If not, what can we do about it?

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

James Bandow March 29, 2012 at 9:29 am

Dr. Kennedy’s article is quite relevant, not just to history, but to other academic and professional vocations. Though there is a “trial by fire” approach, my observations over the past 30 years as an archaeologist would suggest that much of the non-objective critique results from research that conflicts with the dominant paradigm. When one reviews some of the greatest discoveries, theories and technological breakthroughs, we observe that these individuals were ‘outsiders’. Whether it was Albert Einstein, Eric Wolf, or the totally shunned Nicholas Tesla, we see a behavioral pattern of disenfranchisement. I personally know an archaeologist who has trouble getting published because his archaeological data conflicts with the preconceived notions of historians and ethnohistorians despite the fact that ‘notions’ are, in a word, just that! They are not facts. Hence, we need to critque new evidence with an open mind because, in the end, history or the history of knowlege will prove or disprove as new knowledge comes to light. Historians need to remember that ‘history’ is no different than ‘science’. Both demand the burden of proof. So lets not unnecessarily burden those indiviiduals seeking those proofs.

Matt Bera March 30, 2012 at 10:20 am

An excellent piece. I strongly suspect that many of the problems in this process stem from the outcomes. Unlike basic training, medical residency and other forms of ordeal, most academic ones do not end in initiation and acceptance into a professional or other group with some kind of benefit, qualification, or job. Instead, they too often leave the candidate feeling about two inches tall, with little but the prospect of another series of ordeals and the distant, fading hope of stable work in the future. I have no problem with a highly competitive system, but an often indefinite period of competition just to “get in” is squandering the work and talent of a large number of people who would very likely have made good careers in other fields.

Nicolaas Vergunst April 25, 2012 at 7:50 am

Both Kennedy and Bandow raise excellent points about the making of historians and the production of history. Whether we put ourselves or our work through the fire, it is always a painful and lonely ordeal. However, challenging the limits of our own discipline requires courage on both sides, particularly when transgressing the boundaries of another. So, too, lets not burden those seeking proof in unconventional places—like songs, legends, dreams or oral histories—as these are no less the ashes of ‘history’ than are archives, treaties and declarations.

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